Jesse Jackson Jr. was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in federal prison Wednesday, the closing chapter in the story of a pol who rapidly ascended the political ladder only to fall quickly and dramatically from public grace.

His story is a reminder of how quickly everything can come crashing down in politics. And the bigger you are, the harder you fall.

It wasn't that long ago that the political world was abuzz with chatter about the heights that Jackson might reach in his career. He is, after all, the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights icon. And he was elected to the House in a 1995 special election at just 30.

His future once looked pretty bright. There was talk over the years that Jackson might one day run for mayor of Chicago, governor of Illinois, or for a seat in the U.S. Senate. He is a natural public speaker who built a liberal record in the House that could have served as the backbone of a bid for higher office. He even landed a plum speaking spot at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

But things started taking a turn for the worse in recent years. He became ensnared in the scandal over a Senate seat involving Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). And an extramarital affair he was having spilled into public view But it was all nothing compared to the revelation that he spent about $750,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses, the crime that punched Jackson's ticket to prison.

There's a lesson here for pols who are considering engaging in similar behavior. Jackson risked a great deal by doing what he did, and in the end it caught up with him. Amassing political power can also sometimes cultivate and above-the-law attitude or an I'm-not-going-to-get-caught posture. Jackson's tale serves as a reminder to politicians of all stripes of how dangerous such thinking can be.

Political falls from grace come in different shapes and sizes. There are the kind you can recover from (Mark Sanford), the kind that come as you are being mentioned as a possible presidential candidate (George Allen), and the type that are more or less impossible to come back from (John Edwards).

It's difficult to envision Jackson making any sort of real political comeback after he is released from prison. His crime would give any opponent easy fodder for attacks.

Perhaps Jackson may never entertain such a re-entrance into the world that once offered him such appealing opportunities for advancement. He may pursue something else entirely.

Jackson's legacy will largely be defined by where he went wrong. Career-wise, he built a record that had many speculating about how high he could go -- but that will now be buried under his indiscretions in the historical accounts of his career. Jackson learned a lesson the hard way, landing with a thud after flying high for years.


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